The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that “Stand Your Ground” immunity granted in criminal cases cannot be automatically transferred to civil cases filed in response to the same incident.
The standard of proof in a criminal case – beyond a reasonable doubt – differs from that in a civil case – the preponderance of the evidence (which basically means it was more likely than not something occurred in a certain way). That’s why a person can be found not guilty in a criminal trial, but still be found liable for damages in a civil case.
Many civil injury lawsuits are predicated on wrongdoing based on negligence. That is, someone owed a duty of care, that duty of care was breached and injuries resulted. However, some civil cases involve intentional torts. These can include things like assault and battery, false imprisonment or intentional infliction of emotional distress. A single incident can be the subject of both a criminal case and a civil case, but the two are entirely separate, and the outcome of one should not influence the outcome of the other, though much of the same evidence may be presented.
In the recent case, the incident from which it all arose was a bar fight in South Florida. Plaintiff physically attacked defendant without provocation at a bar. In reaction to this, defendant struck plaintiff in the face with a glass. The result was permanent loss of eyesight in one of plaintiff’s eyes.
The state filed charges against defendant for felony battery. However, defendant sought immunity from prosecution under the state’s Stand Your Ground law. F.S. 776.032 offers immunity from both criminal prosecution and civil action for the justified use or threatened use of force. Stand Your Ground says there is no duty to retreat first before using such force where there is a presumption of death or great bodily harm.
The circuit court granted defendant’s motion for immunity in the civil case, and that finding is final.
However, plaintiff then filed a complaint in a civil case, alleging both battery and negligence. Defendant once again sought immunity under Stand Your Ground and, citing the criminal court’s findings, moved for summary judgment. The circuit court denied the summary judgment motion and ordered a hearing in order to determine whether defendant should be immune from this action.
Before that hearing, defendant filed a petition for writ of prohibition. He argued the trial court lacked jurisdiction over him in the civil matter because he’d already been deemed immune in the criminal case. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals granted that petition, finding F.S. 776.032 guarantees a person a single immunity determination under Stand Your Ground for both civil and criminal actions.
The Florida Supreme Court noted there is no mechanism wherein a civil defendant would be able to preemptively secure a determination of immunity in cases where a civil injury lawsuit is filed before a criminal matter. Further, even if immunity is determined in the criminal case first, that can’t be binding on a potential civil plaintiff who isn’t party to the criminal proceedings because the law doesn’t generally allow binding a person to judicial determinations made in a case wherein he or she was not a party.
Therefore, separate findings of immunity would have to be made for each.
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Kumar v. Patel, Sept. 28, 2017, Florida Supreme Court
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